City Lights – Present: Place and People


City Light Bookstore

Having never been to City Lights, I found the more I researched it the more fascinated I became. San Francisco in general is truly a melting pot of people due to it’s proximity to Asia, but not just in nationalities, in age as well. Then when I narrowed my approach to just the area surrounding City Lights I found it even more fascinating. City Lights is an independent bookstore that happens to lie smack dab in the middle of two areas of San Francisco: North Beach and Chinatown, however interestingly enough North Beach is the one that lays more claim to City Lights. This bookstore was named for the Charlie Chaplin film and it resides right in the center of many cultures including Italian pizza joints, 1920’s inspired bars and strip clubs, and Beat Generation clubs. Being at the heart of this all, City Lights caters to all of this diversity.

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From when City Lights was founded, in 1953, it has not moved or changed much, but the area has grown around it. The population is currently a little over 17,000 where the majority who reside in North Beach are people in their mid-30’s or early 40’s and they are typically not white. Since North Beach borders Chinatown the population is predominately Asian even though North Beach used to be referred to as San Francisco’s own Little Italy. That average income is  almost 60,000 which is actually a little lower than the San Francisco average being around 10,000 dollars more, but the rent is a little lower which accommodates this statistic. Aside from the main forein population, a lot of people are actually high income, urban singles. They are highly educated which is what draws in a large salary and they live upperclass lifestyles. Interestingly enough City Lights does not cater just towards the ones with the biggest wallets, their main clientele are people called the Beat Generation which makes this bookstore a tourist attraction for these types of people.

Race Break Down City Lights Present

Race breakdown of North Bea

North Beach demographics

North Beach demographics












The Beat Generation was a name first coined by Jack Kerouac in describing a generation of youths who were thought as anti-conformist, or in common terms sort of ‘hipster. They also grew to have their own innovations in style and music since they rejected social norms. The throwback to this generation is exemplified very well by the Vesuvio Cafe which is directly across from City Lights. 

Vesuvio Cafe

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From the name Vesuvio Cafe you’d assume that it’s a cutesy little coffee shop, but in actuality it’s a bar or a saloon as they describe themselves in their website. This is a perfect example of how City Lights has shaped a lot of the places around it. Community, like how Laura Miller discusses, is typically a small area made up of social bonds, past tradition, and not constantly changing all the time. This community is definitely wrapped around City Lights because a lot of the websites of the places surrounding this bookstore make references to being near City Lights and they try to be more artsy to keep up with the type of area and supposed customers that are attracted to City Lights.

However something I thought was extremely interesting was if this population is so ‘artsy’, why right up the street from a big beatnik tourist attraction like City Lights would you have a strip club? I found the Condor Club to be sort of hilarious in my research because it’s just right there smack dab in the middle of little restaurants and on an intersection. From living outside of Philly I’ve noticed that though we do have a plethora of  strip joints, they’re usually off the beaten path and never right in a central part of town. From looking into the website I did notice that it was definitely not a sleazy joint, at least as not-sleazy as a strip club can be, and I realized it too was trying to be artsy. Screen shot 2013-09-07 at 8.33.05 PMThe theme is sort of like the roaring 20’s, which is ironic since it resides right next to another strip joint called the roaring 20’s, but both have  glitzy sofa chairs, lots of gold and red, and so much fringe everywhere. It reminded me a lot of the movie Moulin Rogue.  They seemed to be proud on their website and they’d advertise for not just stripping, but exotic dancing as they called it. They also had monthly calendars starring weekly unknown, or at least not world renowned, artists playing there. If it wasn’t for the giant neon sign declaring it to be a topless bar, I don’t think most people would even look twice at it.

The Condor Club

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Aside from these two joints that immediately popped out to me, the rest of the City Lights neighborhood is mainly restaurants, and typically Italian or if you go farther South, Asian. They can range from something fancy to just a small pizza club, but I think this speaks to the diversity of this area. It truly is a melting point of individuals and I think from looking into this neighborhood I’m starting to understand more what Raymond Williams was saying when he mentioned with literature there was a shift from learning to taste and sensibility. To have such a diverse amount of people living in one area, you have to accommodate them if you want your bookstore to thrive. Molding yourself to the consumer is inevitable and you have to have “the proper environment for the sale of books” (40) to quote Laura Miller once more in her discussion of book selling.

Seeing as City Lights was first founded in 1953 and is still such a popular tourist attraction to this day, even named a landmark in 2001, it is doing something right. I think City Lights most definitely describes itself as a place because they know their audience and understand all the kinds of people who are going to shop and come in every day. Cresswell describes place as a “site of multiple identities and histories” as all as “uniqueness of place defined by its interactions” (74) which explains City Lights perfectly. They are truly, as stated before, a community in their neighborhood  and they become a community, or a ‘place’ by interacting with those people and learning form them. All of the different cultures that make up this area are what keep City Lights alive and vice versa. They thrive off of each other and City Lights being such a big tourist attraction is what makes it a sense of place for not only the people who live there but everything. That’s how bookstores can stay relevant by staying true to their customers and truly opening up to all different kinds of cultures. Only with a true sense of place can a bookstore feel so connected to a community like City Lights accomplishes.




North Beach Statistics, Race graph:

North Beach Age and People demographics:


City Lights bookstore:

Vesuvio Cafe:

The Condor Club:


North Beach Area:

Google maps: Vesuvio Cafe and Condor Club


Cresswell, Tim. Place a short introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 74.

Print.Miller, Laura J. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature.

Vigil, Delfin. “City Lights Bookstore.” San Francisco Chronicle. (2009): E6. Web. 12 Sep. 2013.